Bandstands have been a feature of the British way of life for well over a century. But what are their origins?
The first domed bandstand – then called a ‘bandhouse’ – is believed to be the one erected in London's Royal Horticultural Society's gardens in South Kensington, built on slender cast iron legs in 1861.
Victorian England witnessed a proliferation of public parks as cities sought to alleviate the grime of industrialisation with oases of green for recreation. Parks needed a focal point and what better than a bandstand, which, with its rich decoration and its oriental shape, provided just that? But a bandstand wasn't purely decorative – it provided music too. It was our Victorian forefathers who thought that 'good music would free the mind of urban griminess and humanise the industrial landscape'. During their heyday in the Victorian era, bandstands were enormously popular and drew crowds of up to 10,000. For instance, Thursday night concerts at Myatt's Fields, Lambeth were always packed, right up until the Second World War. An account by the Daily Express writer Jack Donaldson published in 1937 observed: 'I arrived on time but there was no room on the seats or the railings, so I leant against a tree and enjoyed the music. The children danced to it, played ball to it, sang to it and ignored it, The grown-ups, all listening, sat round on their wooden seats or leant against the green railings and were happy.'
In many of London's parks, bandstands were erected, not only in the larger more popular parks such as Battersea, Clapham Common and the Royal Parks, but in numerous smaller local parks and recreation grounds such as Belvedere Recreation Ground, Barnet, Erith Recreation Ground, Bexley, Plashet Park, Newham and Telegraph Hill Park in Hatcham. At one stage there were over 150 bandstands in London's parks.
With the passing of the London Council (General Powers) Act 1890, the one-year-old London County Council obtained the power to fund and provide music in its parks and open spaces. At the time, prior to purchasing the South Kensington bandstands, there were only three other bandstands in London, one erected by the previous Metropolitan Board at Finsbury Park, and a further two, at Victoria Park and Battersea Park, established by Her Majesty's Office of Works. By 1901 the LCC had ordained the building of no fewer than 22 bandstands and the same number of temporary stands, and had established four bands to give summer performances in them during daylight.
The Council's progressive policies on music for the people had already run into political trouble, as the Musical Times reported in 1893. The local vestries, lobbied strongly by 'musicians, artists, literary and medical men, and others who earn their living by the higher kinds of brain work', called on the Council to join them in representations to the Home Secretary ‘to mitigate the nuisance’ being caused to these sensitive classes by street musicians. The main offenders were the organ grinders, 'of whom the Italians alone number 920, according to recent statistics'. Next came 'the German bands' and after them 'hundreds of mountebanks, singing beggars, fiddlers, cornet players, performers on the harp, clarinet, tin whistle, and other instruments'. In 1901, the LCC Parks Committee chose German born Carl Armbruster as musical adviser with the sole aim of improving not only the quantity but also quality of music in London's parks. The annual number of band performances under predecessor Warwick Williams rose from 635 in 1893 to 852 in 1899. Under Armbruster's direction, they went from 1,202 in 1902 to 1,505 in 1911.
Their popularity was reported in the Wellington Evening Post, New Zealand 29 March 1902.
Mr. Carl Armbruster, the musical adviser of the L.C.C., has been interrogated as to his opinion respecting the moral influence of music upon the poorer classes of London. He says: "I have had, repeatedly, occasion to observe the truth of the proverb that 'music hath charms to soothe the savage breast'." The Council provides bands, which perform in some forty parks and open spaces of London, during the summer months. The performances are, of course, free to the public, and take place twice a week, or even more frequently, generally late in the afternoon. They last about three hours, and generally end about sunset. These bands have been playing now for nine summers, in all parts of London, in the fashionable West End, as well as in the East End, where there are whole square miles of streets filled with the most squalid descriptions of humanity. In these latter districts the audiences were so ill-behaved, when the bands were first sent there to play, that stones were positively thrown at the bandsmen, and the yelling of the children (and even of adults) scarcely allowed the bands to be heard. Within a few years all this has now been changed; the audiences are now orderly, and, as a rule, silent and attentive, breaking into applause when a piece is over. Quite a remarkable improvement has also taken place in their attire; formerly the whole audience was in rags, which reeked of dirt. Now the women, though belonging to the poorest class, try to dress as decently as possible, while the men, who are workmen, factory hands, and dock labourers only, stand or sit around in their working clothes – but not in rags, as before.
But the popularity of these concerts had waned by the 1950s. There was a brief revival in the late 60s when groups like Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac played a series of free bandstand concerts at Parliament Hill in London and David Bowie played a free concert in Beckenham Recreation Ground, Bromley, but most parks were by now struggling and, in the years between 1979 and 2001, more than half of the bandstands in historic parks across the country were demolished, vandalised or fell into a chronic state of disuse. However, a revival is under way. Bandstands have been restored and are now in use up and down the country and in London too, and are once again becoming the focal points of restored and vibrant parks, not just echoing to the sounds of brass, but often bouncing to rhythm and blues, rock, opera, street theatre and drama.
Bandstands of Britain, Paul Rabbitts; History Press 2015